On Film Criticism

When people get together at the water cooler on Monday morning and discuss the movies they saw over the weekend, the discussion invariably uses words like good, funny, and great.  Usually the comments are short, like "Toy Story 3 is a great movie," or "MacGruber was horrible.”  What are the people saying, and what ideas are they trying to convey?  My tendency when hearing vague comments like good, bad, funny, great, and terrible; is to ask more questions about the film.  What are the criteria than you judge a film by?  Why was the story compelling?  Why was the acting good or believable?  Are the special effects that well done?  When somebody asks you why did you like a film, do you just give that person a gut reaction?  The only purpose of this article is to help the reader to think critically about the movie for only a moment, and to think and reflect on what is it that makes that film so great.

Before the days of the Internet, Netflix and high-speed downloads, the viewers choices were limited going to a theater to see a film or to wait for it to come out as a VHS (or Betamx) at your local video rentals store.  Before VCRs, one could rent the film in either 16mm or Super-8 format, for home viewing.  Today we can look up reviews and film synopsis on the Internet and download or have a movie shipped to us in a day or so.  However, when you see a film, read a review or a film critique on the Internet or in the newspaper, what is it in that review that makes you wants to see a film?


When watching a movie do you look at your watch from time to time to see how much time has elapsed since the film started.  If so you then you may be a victim of poor pacing or bad editing.  Lately, In some films that I have watched, I find that the action happens very quickly, and with a rush of excitement, I look at my watch and realize that two hours have passed and the film is over.  Is that a good movie?  This year’s release of the TV series the A-Team is one example.  Non-stop action bridges the formula plot giving the viewer an adrenaline high leaving the audience with an empty rush.  I know this is a weird comparison, but another fast-paced film is Fight Club starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt.  In Fight Club, director David Fincher alternates fast-paced scenes between slower developmental scenes to enrich both the story and the characters.  With the fast cutting technique, directors may tend to overlay a narrative soundtrack to even out the editing to make the film flow smoothly.  Take, for example, the Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, where in the fast opening sequence Lara travels to the Temple of Apollo, encounters her enemies, fights a shark, and wakes up with a submarine between her legs.  The first act is fast and exciting; however, do you remember the middle sequence.  Does your mind jump to the end where she fights with antagonist, Jonathan Reiss over Pandora's Box?  The reason is, the scriptwriters, in this case, Jan de Bont, takes the standard three acts, and fills the shorter first and the third with action and leaves some story development between Jolie and Butler for the longer second act.  Next time you watch an action film, look for this three act pacing convention.


Having too much action in a film is just as bad as too much dialog, once again, do you feel like you are watching heads in a box, or the talking between characters, seem to go on forever?  In this case, it may not be too much dialog, but unnecessary dialog.  Many films are dialog centric films, like Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn's The Lion in Winter from 1968.  Another example is Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre, an amazing film where the writers unload their thoughts in front of the camera.  In both cases, The Lion in Winter, and My Dinner With Andre, the dialog moves the story and the visuals compliment the dialog and the actors.  However, in many cases, the screenwriter are trying to convey certain thoughts or emotions and don't seem to think visually about how to do that.  Instead, the writers do what they know best, write dialog.  In many cases, a look or a glance by an actor can convey the thoughts implied by the writer or the director.  Take Matrix Revolutions, for example, where near the end; Trinity is dying and goes into this long soliloquy.  Too much dialog -- just die Trinity!

Unique Vision 

How many times have you seen the same movie repeatedly?  I am not talking about watching Star Wars twenty times since its release; I am talking about watching movies whose theme you’ve seen countless times before.  Not counting sequels, a familiar theme that seems to be on the mind of Hollywood producers are stories of benevolent ghosts who cling to their loved ones only doing them harm and not moving on to a happier place.  Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones comes to mind.  While watching Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel, I felt that I was watching a different version of What Dreams May Come.  An adaptation of a Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) story, What Dreams May Come tells a similar story of a dead man who can't let go of his grieving wife, which is similar to the plot line of 1990's Ghost.  Patrick Swayze is killed, and he haunts his wife played by Demi Moore.  Going only one year back to 1989, we find the same theme again while watching Richard Dreyfuss, haunting Holly Hunter in Steven Spielberg's Always.  What makes these movies with the same theme different is the director's unique vision of how to tell their story.  I am sure as Jackson and his New Zealand crew was brainstorming The Lovely Bones, they thought of What Dreams May Come, and decided to use some of the films surrealistic landscapes to represent Susie Salmon's perception of heaven.  While Ghost and Bones are mysteries, and Dreams and Always are not, they share similarities, but it is their contrasting elements that make them unique.  In Always and Dreams, both of the main stars die by accident, while in, Bones and Ghost, the main characters die by people they know.  Watching for the contrasts in the story lines will help you to relate on film to another giving you reasons to think about why you loved flick-A which, has the same theme as flick-B, but you hate flick-B.

Although filmmaking is an art it is also a business, and as much as I would love to discuss acting, sets, and special effects in this piece.  We have already covered much grown; however, I think it would better we review what we have covered so far, and review these concepts in thinking critically about why you like or dislike a movie.  First, we went over pacing and editing, does the film jump too quickly form one scene to another so abruptly that your spleen hurts.  On the other hand, does the camera linger excessively long on scenes; and does your mental clock goes off, and screams to change the picture?  Are the long interesting dialog scenes, fail to impress because the director doesn't change the point of view of the camera enough times.  While watching a movie, do you find yourself wondering off into space for more than a long blink, then think about how the pacing and the editing are lacking.  Look in the credit for the guy, or team that edited film, take a quick note, it may save you from seeing a bad film in the future.  If dialog leave you cold, uninterested, and board, and does it, throughout the last a major portion throughout most of the scenes?  You may find yourself watching a bad movie, but now you will know it is because of the dialog.  Does the movie you are watching have a unique vision that you can tell that this is a Steven Spielberg film, by John Ford, Orson Welles, Ridley Scott, or Steven Spielberg by that stamp or uniqueness that only they as directors can bring to a film.

My hope is that you take away from this article are some ideas to think about when watching your favorite movie, mentally play the theme association game in your head and see how many movies with the same moral or story theme.  Take note at how many times you look at your watch in the theater, and remember that number during your water-cooler talk.


The Lovely Bones
Jan de Bont
David Fincher
Fight Club
Matrix Revolutions
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
My Dinner with Andre
What Dreams May Come

When you ask friends about what they liked about a movie do they use words like, good, bad, great, worst to describe the film.  When giving a  simple critique use this guide to help your friends and yourself explain why a movie was good or bad.

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